Wednesday, September 3, 2008


The S family travels through the Rustbelt came to a close, sadly, on Labor Day. But they gave me the chance to take the pulse of middle America this election year. A few highlights.

Our first stop was wonderful Cleveland, Ohio. I have long been a fan of the misnamed Mistake by the Lake and I think I won over my kids too, especially after the hearty $2.95 breakfast at the fabulous West Side Market. Surprisingly, I didn't see a lot of signs of political activity in this crucial battleground state. Perhaps that's because of the recent troubles in Cuyahoga County's Democratic Party. I am hoping that we passed through the city during a quiet stage of organizing and that canvassers are fanning out registering new voters by the thousands.

I wanted to stop in grim Gary and postindustrial Hammond, but my family was tired, so we took a spin up to the Chicago Skyway via Kline Boulevard, the nearly empty, wide highway that one of my Rustbelt intellectual friends, a native of northwest Indiana, calls the former driveway of the proletariat. Kline Boulevard passes the once-mighty steel complexes of Gary, places that provided tens of thousands of jobs just a generation ago, but now run with minuscule workforces. The S kids were bored but still impressed by the vision of the dark, satanic mills along the lake.

Up to Chicago, a city that has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis under Mayor Richard Daley. I visit there frequently, but usually in the winter. This summer, with exquisite weather, we explored the city and its various neighborhoods. Two observations: 1) the white, rich North Side of Chicago is whiter and richer than ever. I have never seen so many young couples with strollers on a weekday in city neighborhoods like Lincoln Square and Andersonville. It feels a bit like Leave it to Beaver revisited. 2) The South Side is just as bleak as ever, a few pockets like the gussied up Bronzeville excepted.

Mayor Richard Daley has decided, like most big city mayors these days, to turn the city's built environment into a monument to himself. The process of beautification and job creation (public works has long been the lifeblood of the Chicago machine) began in earnest when the Democrats chose Chicago for their 2004 convention. Miles of formerly desolate stretches of city streets have been turned into greenways, with landscaped islands and trees. The wide and rather grim Ashland Avenue is a good example. The best of the landscape enhancements, in my opinion, are the various efforts to calm traffic on the city's residential streets. Cities laid out on a grid provide countless temptations for speeding. But now, many side streets are quiet because of the strategic deployment of speed bumps and traffic islands. Hooray for taming the great menace to urban life, the car.

But the limitation's of Daley-ification are clearest on the South Side. One of the highlights of our trip was an evening out with blog idol Kathy G of The G Spot and her husband Mr. G Spot. Adopted Chicagoans, they offered us a tour of Hyde Park (including a drive-by of the Obama "mansion") before taking us deep into the South Side to the New Apartment Lounge for the regular Tuesday night gig by the incomparable jazz genius Von Freeman.

What's crystal clear is that urban prettification hasn't done much for the vacant-lot strewn and boarded up streetscapes of places where the city's rich and white seldom venture. One lowlight that turned into a highlight: the S family car had trouble, leading us to a car dealership in Marquette Park, one of the formerly white, blue-collar neighborhoods that became infamous in 1966 when Martin Luther King, Jr. led open housing protests there. Alas, Marquette Park was not integrated then, and it is not now. It's a typically grim Rustbelt cityscape of rundown houses with mostly shabby shops and stores, left behind by its bitter white residents and left behind by city officials today. It's a reminder that, for all of Chicago's celebrated yuppification, it's still a city of sharp divides between rich and working-class, black and white. Buffing up Lincoln Park has not trickled down to Marquette Park.

Stay tuned for more on the Tour of Rustbelt, including watching the Democratic convention with my Limbaugh-loving family, walking a half mile to pick up a signal on my cell phone, and drinking beer with UAW members and fisherman talking about Sarah Palin.


Dr. Swanger said...

Tom, glad to see you back. Although short, this is the best travelog I've read in awhile -- I was thinking about the contrast I could make between how my city (Denver) was recently presented by the national media compared to how I'd describe it myself. I see in your post the same contrast between the Chicago I've seen as a visitor to what one would see as a resident who loves the city. It also occurs to me how much our major infrastructural development over the past half-century has been to herd us spatially away from parts of cities that have been abandoned. I worked as a consultant in Chicago for an entire fall three years ago and I had to work to see any of the tough parts of town. It's just so convenient not to.

Pete Jones said...

Oh man, Von Freeman is such a living legend! Sounds like it was a very solid rustbelt vacation.

MoXmas said...

Speaking as a former Region Rat (fromm post industrial Hammond):

1) It's Cline Avenue, not Kline.

2) By taking Cline, you got to see all the Casinos that have replaced the steel mills.

But you missed the weird pleasures of the Indiana Toll Road, like racing the South Shore, seeing the Railcats stadium (minor league baseball) loom over the highway at Broadway, and (sometimes) having small planes fly only a few feet above the roof of your car while coming in for landing at the Gary Airport.

Tom S said...

Thanks, Dr. S. Your observations about infrastructural changes are right on the mark. In many big cities, it's possible to zoom past poor and working-class neighborhoods on highways that were built on top of their bulldozed business districts. Pete, it was an amazing concert. Check him out--worth a trip to Chicago. He's 86 but he has the energy of a 56 y.o. But that means see him soon. Moxmas, thanks. We skipped Cline on the way home, took the tollway and saw the Railcats home field. Alas, we missed the planes. I promise more on my Rustbelt journey soon.

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